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Where Oh Where Has The Musical Theater Gone?

By Suzy Evans in Add category on Mar 23, 2009 7:20PM

Musical theater has been on our minds lately because frankly, we’re having trouble finding it in Chicago. Not just any musical theater - new work that originates in the second city. Sure Wicked had a nice run but the show began with an out-of-town try-out in San Francisco. Jersey Boys is still going strong, but the show’s ticket prices don’t really appeal to the masses. National tours come through all the time, most rrecently with Rent opening this week. But let’s face it: it’s just a cheap ploy to make a lot of money. (Original cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal are way too old to play struggling 20 year olds in the East Village.) And to add insult to injury, each one of those shows is based on some prior piece of work.

However, musicals are more expensive to produce than straight plays, and with the economy in shreds, producing any new work can be a little scary, especially new musicals. Look at Broadway. A few weeks ago, there was an article in the New York Times about how Broadway is “holding on” in the economic crisis. However, every musical that opened on Broadway this month was a revival of a historically successful show. So is the musical theater industry really succeeding if even Broadway must depend on reproducing the classics?

Sure Chicago has had its fair share of out-of-town try outs. Broadway mega-musical The Producers started in Chicago, and this November, The Addams Family musical will test its tricks at the Oriental Theater. But a pre-Broadway try-out every few years is not enough to lend us the musical theater cred we need.

There is some hope for Chicago though. We’re not stoked that the Goodman is doing ANOTHER O’Neill show next season, but the theater does have a history of bringing musical theater to Chicago. Adam Guettel, grandson of musical theater legend Richard Rogers, premiered his Light in the Piazza at the theater. And this fall, Animal Crackers, based on the Marx Brothers film, will start off the 2009-2010 season.

Don’t count Chicago out too fast though. Northwestern graduates Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler are not only bringing musical theater to Chicago but they’re revolutionizing the art form itself with Boyfred, a web-TV musical series. The series is about a Chicago boy who keeps his Peace Corps girlfriend up to date on the local happenings, and the site will consist of postings by these fictional characters with musical elements. (The team also wrote the children’s musical How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back? for Chicago Shakespeare in 2007.) The site is not up and running yet, but the concept proves that local artists are excited about bringing musical theater in our fair city. We may not be Broadway, but who really wants to be anyway?